While we have been reminding readers of the fact that the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) protects employees regardless of whether they are represented by a union and the Act applies to non-unionized workforces, too, recently a National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”) Administrative Law Judge issued a decision following an unfair labor practice (“ULP”) hearing based on a charge filed by a teacher at New York City’s prestigious Dalton School that should serve as an object lesson for employers in all non-union businesses.

The case, Dalton School, Inc., involved a series of emails concerning a school musical. The case arises out of a doomed production of a middle school rendition of Thoroughly Modern Millie. The Charging Party, David Brune, was one of five teachers in the theater department at the Manhattan private school. In late 2013, the theater department starting putting together the Millie production, including assigning roles, rehearsing lines and songs and preparing sets and costumes. In early January 2014, just weeks before opening night, complaints regarding Asian ethnic stereotypes in the play by parents and faculty were received by the school’s administration. . The school ordered Brune to discontinue all work on the production two weeks prior to the opening; and eventually, certain offending parts of the play were re-written. Brune only learned that the revamped production would open on schedule three days prior to the opening. Despite the short notice, and with a lot of work in that short period, the production was successful.

Afterwards, Brune shared his views with how the school’s administration handled the concerns and the changes in the play with the other faculty members in the school’s theater department. Through a series of drafted letters to school management, and e-mails within the department, Brune and the others spoke of the redress they felt they should receive for the mishaps with Millie and their views as to how to avoid a repeat in the future. In one of these emails, Brune accused school management of lying to the theater department.

A month after he sent the emails, Brune was called into a meeting with the school management, where they debriefed on the Millie situation. The head of the school asked Brune if he ever said anything negative about the school administration, such as accusing it of lying. He denied saying anything negative. On April 17, 2014, Brune was again summoned to a meeting with School management, but this time, he was presented with a copy of an email he had sent to other teachers during February, in which he wrote that that management had lied to the theater department and the students. At this meeting, Brune was told his contract would not be renewed for the next year and that he could leave immediately or finish out the school year.

Rather than going quietly into the good night, Brune filed a ULP charge with the New York regional office of the NLRB claiming that he had been terminated for engaging in protected concerted activity, that is his communications with his fellow teachers. Following an investigation, the Board’s Regional Director issued a complaint and the matter was tried before ALJ Arthur J. Amchan.

In defending against the claims, Dalton denied that the decision not to renew Brune’s contract for the following year was not related to any concerted, protected activity. Rather, the school asserted that the decision not to renew Brune’s contract was based on the fact that he had been dishonest in the March meeting when asked whether he ever stated that School management lied about the Millie production.

The ALJ found otherwise, and concluded that Dalton rescinded his employment contract because he had engaged in protected, concerted activity when he communicated with his fellow teachers about how the school’s administration had handled the matters. Specifically, the ALJ concluded that the e-mails between the theater department members discussing how to address concerns about the Millie production with school management were concerted protected activity. The Judge reasoned that since the e-mails clearly identified each employee who was involved in the e-mail chain, Dalton was aware that there was more than one employee involved in the communications, putting it on notice that the activities were concerted. The ALJ further found that the school’s actions in the March meeting violated the Act because they were designed to “trap” or catch Brune in a lie about the February e-mail.

This case is a vivid illustration of how employee actions about a wide range of work related matters, including in non-unionized workplaces, can rise to the level of protected activity, even if the actions are as simple as the exchange of emails among co-workers.